By Ian Inkster, Mark Wenyi Lai & Victoria Hsin Hsin Chang

The academic commentaries that have hit the scene in the Taiwanese newspapers and social media tend to be either rather extreme, or far too general and light-fingered to stand the many tests of time. There might be exceptions, but below is an attempt to run some of the results through a comparative lens in order to find some order in the complex results of the Nov. 24 elections and referendums.

Will a new generation of voters who are now glued to internet forums change the old political mobilization machine?

Gay marriage

On the international democracies scene at present there is little formal, national-based evidence concerning public attitudes to gay marriage, which is itself a vital element in how we might measure a nation’s attitudes towards gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The assumption in the UK, U.S. and much of Europe certainly seems to be that the populations at large are liberal in their attitudes as they become more informed, alert to and sympathetic to the complex issues concerned.


Credit: AP / TPG

The failure of the Nov. 24 marriage equality referendum may have more to do with the DPP's socio-economic mishaps.

For Taiwan, a poll conducted by Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation in 2016 showed 46 percent for and 45 percent against gay marriage. In 2017, a poll released by China Times showed a decrease of supporters (38 percent for and 49 percent against the gay marriage). However, in the Nov. 24 referendum, the votes for the anti-gay question (‘marriage is between a man and a woman’) gained 69 percent of voters’ approval. Only 30 percent of voters said yes in supporting same-sex marriage.

How do we explain this gradual change of attitude toward what seems to be a progressive social policy in other democratic societies? A general thesis would be that the perceived underlying socioeconomic failures of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have created an antagonistic environment in which all ‘liberal’ tendencies are questioned by large numbers of fairly middling voters. Social issues become partisan politics.

Alongside gay rights we could expect the newly or more clearly voiced antitheses to clean energy policy, fair labor laws, greater environmental protection and broader definitions of what that entails. As we will see below, this can be extended to the identity politics involved in the China issue.

The DPP failure in the broader socio-economy has served to spoil the atmosphere for liberal reforms. Could this be next demonstrated in the U.S. and UK? Two major democracies about to face electorates – the first boasting economic growth and improved employment, the second now inside a disaster zone of Brexit politics and facing lower growth for some time – will liberal policy in fact survive Trumpian rhetoric for some time yet, while economic disaster moves against liberal policy making under Labour or the Tories in the UK?

Alongside gay rights we could expect the newly or more clearly voiced antitheses to clean energy policy, fair labor laws, greater environmental protection and broader definitions of what that entails.

The faster election cycle

For the Kuomintang (KMT), former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) gained 58.45 percent of votes in the 2008 presidential election. His first midterm election in 2010 showed a drastic fall (KMT 44.54 percent of votes). For the DPP, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) had 56.12 percent of votes in 2016 and now the DPP’s votes have fallen to 39.16 percent. Ma and his political party’s approval rate fell 13.91 percent and Tsai’s fell 16.96 percent.

A brave thesis is that an ageing process has ensured that Taiwan’s voters now get tired of their favorite politicians more quickly than ever before. In Taiwan, decision makers are now around their 60s and 70s. Tsai is 62, Ma is 68, the KMT Chairman is 70, the KMT candidate in Taipei was 64, the DPP’s candidate in New Taipei was 71, and even the new super-star, seemingly energetic mayor elected for Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), is also 61.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Han Kuo-yu, the KMT's superstar in Kaohsiung, is no fountain of youth for the party.

In fast-changing environs, old politicians on fixed trajectories tend to promise too much and aim too high. Thus, disappointment soon arrives. The competitions of election promises are creating a vicious cycle of high expectations. There is little time in which to adjust to them or carry them into policy and in a world with quick undigested social-media gossip systems, there is thus a speedy loss of favor. Maybe the election cycles should be extended? The same is happening in most democracies (France was an exception but in very poor circumstances and hard to emulate), so we might expect increasingly hectic electoral politics with more and more political activity sitting outside of major parties and their institutions. Furthermore, Taiwan was in the lead with the Sunflower and subsequent youth-led movements.

The third party element

Because of the vicious cycle just discussed, voters began to put their hopes into a third party (the sum of third, fourth, fifth…). The rise of the Taipei mayor is the most prominent example. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) gained 57.16 percent of votes in 2014, beating the KMT who controlled Taipei City Hall for 16 years. In 2018, Ko has again won the seat, beating both KMT and the DPP.

Adding up the DPP votes (those supposed to be indirectly Ko’s), his votes actually reached a high 59.18 percent. Now it looks like he only won by 3,000 votes, but the reality of voting did not show, as people who vote for Ko would likely never vote for the KMT. If there was no DPP candidate, then Ko’s achievement would have loomed far greater. In 2018, the DPP can not be happy with the Ko phenomenon, and Tsai is afraid that Ko will run against her in 2020.


MiNe / Flickr

Is Ko Wen-je bound to follow in the footsteps of Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump?

Many observers believe that Ko will definitely join the next presidential election. But, according to the prevailing international experience (Emmanuel Macron in France, Liberal Democrats in UK, and assuming Donald Trump is not a real Republican!), the third party is always a temporary scenario. Will there be fundamental restructuring of the political landscape in Taiwan? Will new political super stars such as Ko and Kaohsiung's Han replace the old party system? Will a new generation of voters who are now glued to internet forums change the old political mobilization machine?

Identity politics in the international context

The global thesis is that industrial democracies have since around 1970 moved from a politics of social class, of trade unions versus private enterprise, to a politics of identity in which gender, ethnicity, local community and youth culture figure largely, perhaps to the point of erasing much of the salience of earlier capitalist industrial forms. This may be some function of the rise of the service sectors, employing far more educated youth, at the expense of manufacturing, it may result from impacts of social media, or it may arise from cultural convergence of democracies. But whatever its source or sources, Taiwan has not escaped the trend.

Indeed, the confusions of democratic transition, slower growth with rising youth unemployment, and the fact that the major element in domestic politics since the 1980s has been that of the cross-Strait relationship and the reaction of the mainland to democratic urges in Taiwan, may mean that it is ultra-sensitive to them. It can be argued that the results reflected the perceived failure, in particular, of President Tsai’s Chinese policy, a perception resulting from a retreating sense of ‘Taiwan’s national identity’ that has been misjudged by politicians and media alike.

The result [of the 'Chinese Taipei' referendum] certainly challenges any simple notion that Taiwanese political and cultural identities have shifted towards being more confidently Taiwanese, and less and less Chinese.

Hitherto analysts have persisted in the thesis of a growing sense of national identity as central to personal identities in Taiwan, marked especially by annual and many informal surveys of opinion centering on whether citizens feel more ‘Taiwanese than Chinese.’ In most cases definitions for these terms are not given and true national coverage has not really been attempted. What is the evidence in these elections? How may such evidence be argued as strongly influential in a result where the China-resistant DPP has lost huge ground to the more China-positive KMT?

Referendum 13 gives us a national poll of sorts. It asked: “Do you agree that Taiwan should apply to participate in all international sporting events and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, using the name ‘Taiwan?’” The figures from the Central Election Committee show that of 10,537,642 valid votes for referendum 13, a total of 5,774,556 valid votes were dissenting, and this vetoed the referendum proposition. This result certainly challenges any simple notion that Taiwanese political and cultural identities have shifted towards ”being more confidently Taiwanese, and less and less Chinese. The dissenting majority was of course marginal, but so too were most results at a regional level in all referendums, though there were spectacular variations in areas and townships around this norm.

Statistical analysis from Academia Sinica has indeed already argued that the move from vocal and active China-resistance was flagging before this. In 2013, public opinion in Taiwan reached a peak of around 65 percent in citizens feeling ‘as or more’ Taiwanese than Chinese on broadly political grounds, with this declining to around 58 percent by 2018. The period of most sudden drop was between 2013 and 2014, especially associated with the youthful Sunflower movement and then by the great victory of the DPP in 2016.

Read More: Democracy or Dictatorship? The Taiwanese Opinion Trends Nobody's Talking About


Taiwan Presidential Office

Despite the wishes of Beijing, it may be inaccurate to attribute the DPP defeat to its China policy.

This leads to our second query, the extent of the influence of this major ‘national identity’ issue exerts itself over Taiwanese politics more broadly. What is the evidence so far in these elections and referendums as indicated at this early stage?

If we cross-reference mayoral victories with voting on Referendum 13 in different regions, then we do find some association of KMT mayoral victory with dissent from the proposition of Referendum 13 (e.g., New Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung); and in line with this, an association of DPP mayoral victory with assent to the Referendum 13 proposition (e.g., Tainan and Chiayi). There are notable outliers, such as Taoyuan, where a DPP victory was associated with an overall dissenting win for Referendum 13, but there may be special local factors at work in quite a few cases, given the rise of both independent and new-party candidates throughout Taiwan in recent years.

At this stage then, a very tentative conclusion might be that the identity politics trend as illustrated indirectly in Referendum 13, is not as pundits have generally thought, and that there might be an accelerated decline in the proportion of Taiwanese citizens who are moving towards a demand for greater national identity and autonomy from China. Whether this is because of some natural cultural drift, because of genuine and deep feelings of essential Chinese-ness in Taiwan, especially linked with family ties and employment in China, or because Chinese so-called ‘sharp power’ activities have in recent years been very effective, is particularly difficult to decipher at this time.


Whether such international settings are relevant, and Taiwan either reflects present or indicates future global trends in democracies are moot points. As always, the principal loadstone to generalization is the immediate China context refracted by U.S. policy changes. The present main feature here is of course China’s trade war with the U.S.

For internal U.S. political reasons, Trump is obviously playing the Taiwan card – military exercises around Taiwan, the visit of high-ranking officials to Taipei, protesting against countries which have broken relations with Taiwan – to anger China. This might well be leading to China’s need to cool down Taipei’s rhetoric. China surely won’t go for any risk of actual war and it may be that the only way to check on Taiwan is through Washington, D.C.

Beijing is very happy with the result of last month's elections. The Taiwan Affairs Office immediately announced that they would broaden the exchange with the Taiwan counties and cities which agree with the so-called 1992 Consensus. It is noteworthy that the Office used the term 1992 Consensus instead of One China Policy. The former one still sounds softer. China believes that their softer approach – often felt as pretty sharp within Taiwan – works.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

The AIT, whose new Taipei complex opened this year, made an unprecedentedly strong statement ahead of Taiwan's regional elections.

Before the election, James F. Moriarty, chairman of the American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) told the press that Taiwanese should be careful of the internet "fake news" manipulated by China. It is a rare move by Americans to intervene in quite that manner in Taiwan’s election. So, a scenario might emerge that Washington, D.C. will also be playing the Beijing threat card. The result of the election has seemingly disappointed the Trump administration, and the U.S. might well shift their focus to elsewhere and continue their competition with China.

The result of the election has seemingly disappointed the Trump administration, and the US might well shift their focus to elsewhere and continue their competition with China.

All such conjecture does mean that the recent results may well have been caused by factors directly stemming from China, but may also have implications of direct concern to both China and the U.S. Of more interest here, such external forces might well render Taiwan’s electoral and referendum experience as ultimately of little relevance to what is happening elsewhere.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published in two parts (here and here) by Asia Dialogue, a website published by the University of Nottingham's Asia Research Institute.

TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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